“Hello Transformations, can I help you?”
“Have you got a stiletto in a size 12? Red, if possible?”
“We’re a theatre company. The number you need is…”
When I first met Jackie R, she often gave me the tally of calls she’d received that day from men seeking a transformative experience on their transvestite or transgender journey. It surprised her, in the back water of Cheadle Hulme, that so many men called in. It was particularly surprising since she was a mask based theatre company. Each time, she would patiently read out the number they actually needed.
I was a relatively young Head of Drama in a secondary school at the time and received countless offers of interventions from new and established theatre companies which arrived in the form of leaflets. In truth, I was the worst responder to much excellent work, tied up as I was in the business of surviving each day. So, when my burgeoning pigeon hole was full, I’d re-file the leaflets in the car. Here they would stay until such times as I (or more likely someone else) removed them.
Snotty at that stage was studying on a course about community arts. There was an expectation that individuals on the course would find their own placement. Snotty rifled through my (by now) impressive flyer collection in the car, and by chance, selected Transformation Theatre Company. On such whimsy are life-time friendships made.
Jackie answered the phone – probably relieved that Snotty actually wanted to participate in her world and immediately agreed a placement. It was an exciting time for Transformation – they had (basically through more competent teachers than me) managed to book a tour of the Seasons shows and they were looking for Winter. Snotty got the part.
I met Jackie sometime later, when she’d wanted lots of hands to take part in mask making. I went along for the fun of it. We hit it off straight away. As I am tall, Jackie was small. I like to tell jokes, Jackie liked to laugh at them. So we quickly became firm friends.
A few months later two significant life events took place. I left teaching for a freelance life (without any idea of what that might look like) and Jackie got a job at Mid-Pennine Arts as an arts development officer. It was an excellent coincidence and we began an enduring on/off working relationship over the next 20 years or so. I know that without Jackie I would have had no career to speak of.
She had an innate belief in me to make theatre or to make work with any difficult or challenging young person anywhere across the Mid-Pennine district and to always take a can-do approach. Without doubt, a person thrives with that kind of investment and belief.
Before too long, Jackie moved on to an exciting new position and became the first paid worker at BYT (Burnley Youth Theatre – a place that twisted and turned between us for the next 15/20 years or so). I was invited over to talk about some project or other and was surprised to find a blue hut in an old disused quarry, with a portacabin next door. This was her office. That day, I also met Alan D. Initially, I thought he was just walking his dogs – a couple of lassie type critters – but he was actually coming in for the day to work as a volunteer. Alan was one of what I later came to know as the 3 amigos and although he didn’t know me from Adam, he immediately made a beeline for me. That was the beauty of that place: if you were in, you were in and you were welcome. Alan, Moira and Andrew were three key players who gave hours of their time for free at BYT to build a youth theatre like no other in the country: each in different ways, but each intensely. It might have been a blue hut in a field but those three had plans for it – those three wanted to transform the place into the single most important youth theatre anywhere in the UK. I don’t know where that vision came from, but they each gave up their free time year on year to see it through to an impressive conclusion.
Alan had been the arts development manager at Burnley Council but had left. I do not know why although rumour had it that he had always liked to take a drink, and sometimes this got in the way of his productivity. I don’t know the truth of this…but I do know that he worked day after day on bids for the youth theatre, putting in hours of time to raise money for a new building. He spoke with a gentle Scottish burr and wore what can only be describe as a Greek Fisherman’s hat, and always looked a little like Captain Bird’s Eye. He laughed heartily. I always passed the time of day with him, and he reciprocated, offering me an insight into whatever weird or wonderful thing was in his mind that day. He smiled often.
There is something strange between paid workers and volunteers: something that has to be negotiated. Alan took up a lot of space, and sometimes, because of his history and his former job, chipped in when his thoughts weren’t welcome. Jackie tolerated this as well as anyone could be expected to – but it can’t have been easy. It got better as BYT began to flex its muscles and become a bigger organisation, taking on new staff each year: a marketing person, an outreach person, a caretaker and, finally, a general manager. Jackie became Artistic Director. All this time, young people came to the youth theatre to do sessions, and shows, and a whole lot more. All this time young people grew, changed, fledged and left.
In the early 2000s the 3 amigos and Jackie got perilously close to achieving their ambition of receiving grant aid to build the youth theatre. They were invited down to London to be told of their success only on arriving to be ushered into a room and told there was no money left. No one give up hope. They dusted themselves off and started the long, arduous process of fundraising again. That place was special – generation on generation of children came and went often moving on to other bigger and better things, always giving a really clear sense of the impact of their stay.
Finally in 2003 (or maybe 2004) success came. It was a momentous time: all celebrated this extraordinary thing that had happened. Building work started straight away… and out of the disused quarry sprang the most extraordinary building. It was designed to look like a building that belonged in a the footprint of the forest of Burnley, and it did, clad with beech that aged over time.
The building was completed in 2005 – an extraordinary achievement by Jackie and the 3 amigos. Soon after, Jackie wanted to move on: she had, she felt, completed what she’d set out to do – created the biggest youth theatre space in the country and it was someone else’s turn to take it to the next level.
A new Artistic Director came in and – as is often the case after a successful tenure – he struggled to make an impact. This was compounded by the early (and unexpected) death of Alan D: instrumental in changing the outcomes for so many young people and still committed to bid writing, he allegedly fell down the stairs of his home having had too much to drink. I don’t know if this was salacious gossip or truth: I do know he was a massive loss to the organisation.
To honour him, and early in the new building’s life, Alan’s funeral took place in the main studio. He had been so instrumental in its creation. It was a strange and sombre affair: his coffin on the stage area, as if it wasn’t really happening at all. His children and his wife players in this performance that no one wanted to see took their parts, his daughter delivering an extraordinary powerful eulogy. No one applauded as he left the building, no curtains closed – there was no curtain call and, when it was over, the foyer was full of arts people dressed awkwardly in black who drifted off with few words.
Afterwards, the studio was named for Alan, a fitting tribute. Beneath his name it reads: “Anything can happen, if you don’t care who gets the credit” his favourite homily. And something worth remembering in the business of making a difference, in transforming lives. Something I’ve taken with me.